Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The luxury market for mechanical wristwatches: Why?

with 4 comments

The Guardian has an interesting article by Simon Garfield on the bizarre but flourishing market for luxury analogue watches. From the article, the question he addresses:

. . . And therein lies the mystery of the modern timepiece. These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs.

We live in uncertain economic times, but watch prices at Baselworld show no signs of making a cut-price concession to the unstable yen or rouble, or even the recent competition from the Apple Watch. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: the higher the asking price, the greater the appeal, for cheapness may suggest a reduction in quality.

So the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in platinum (“The watch par excellence of influential people”) is on sale for £41,700, while the platinum Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Chronograph with the alligator strap (“For men who take accuracy seriously”) is £162,970. For some collectors, this would be considered entry-level: the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours.

But why do we continue to buy these over-engineered and redundant machines? Why do so many people pay so much for an item whose principal function may be bought for so little? And how does the watch industry not only survive in the digital age, but survive well enough to erect a 16,000-litre salt‑water shrine to its continued mastery of an outmoded art? Far beyond the telling of time, watches tell us something about ourselves. And so the answers to these questions lie within our propensity for extreme fantasy, our consumption of dazzling marketing, our unbridled and shameless capacity for ostentation, and our renewed reverence for craftsmanship in a digital world.

And perhaps there is something else ticking away at us – . . .

Read the whole thing. I actually got very interested in mechanical wristwatches and in fact bought a couple (not terribly expensive, but still). But then I looked around more and backed away quickly. I now wear a Casio.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 October 2016 at 9:52 am

4 Responses

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  1. It’s fairly obvious. The key line in the article states that its the only commonly accepted form of jewelry for men in modern western culture. And like handbags for women, the quality/exclusivity/brand confers status upon the wearer. Which is why if you work on Wall St, the first thing you do after closing your first big deal or major bonus is go buy a Rolex. It’s a signal to the world that you’re part of the tribe.

    As watches become more and more expensive and rare, the signaling you are doing by owning one becomes directed at a smaller and smaller group or tribe of people — those who can afford the same thing, and who know. Unlike the large, showy watches favored by rap stars (Hublot, par example), a $500K Patek grand complication can be very discreet and 99 out of 100 people would not know what it is.

    There is no doubt that these are very fine machines, and there is a pure joy at owning such a wonderful piece of craft.

    An analogy you might find appropriate is shaving brushes.

    The modern Plisson style synthetic brush is the equivalent of the Casio quartz watch — it actually performs its job better — making lather more easily and efficiently than a badger brush and releasing it without a problem.

    People who collect high end badger brushes talk about the “feel” of the knot and the beauty of the handles. They appreciate the quality and the workmanship that go into making one. They describe synthetic knots as “soulless.”

    But they also like to post acquisition pics and SOTD pics to show off their trophies to their peers on the forums. Part of it is simply pride of ownership. There is less status/signaling involved than for fine watches, but no doubt there is some.


    25 October 2016 at 11:06 am

  2. Very cogent analysis. What a class-conscious society (economic rather than social class) we are now. I in fact wear a Casio (though I once had a Rolex (Submariner)), and I now recommend and use my synthetic brushes more than my high-end badger. I have some nice associations with some of them, and they are certainly good, but just as a cheap quartz watch can in practice do better than all but the best (and most expensive) analogue watches, I think the best synthetics are more than a match for natural bristle in terms of performance and price but not, of course, in the quality you point out: an exclusivity, which the emphasis on “excluded”: the whole thing is about who’s not in our group (who’s not in our tribe, in effect) and making sure to find ways to keep them out (in various ways). Of course, I also heavily recommend the Dorco PL-602, which in terms of comfort and efficiency is at least as good as that of my Above the Tie R1, thought the ATT razor has those same characteristic you identified. But I recommend the Dorco PL-602 a lot, and the R1 or S1 (the two that work for me) very seldom. In terms of performance/price, there are simply much better bargains.

    UPDATE: It seems to be some kind of meme selection going on. Watches, brushes, razors: all those are memes (cultural creations). And so is social standing (obviously a cultural creation). So different artifact memes are mapped to different classes: social, economic, interest, industry, party, and so on: lots of combinations possible.

    And it occurs to me that choice of sports is that kind of marker: lots of soccer in the world, precious little polo in the US (emphasis on “precious”). Squash v. racquetball. Three-cushion billiards v. pool. Snooker v. pool. Go v. chess. And so on. Grand Opera v. Grand Old Opera. Novels. Movies. I see for many thinks it’s simply an expression of personal preferences, from which a group of those sharing the same preference naturally arises. These groups are often evangelical: they like to seek new members, spread the word, share the joy. Think, for example, of traditional wetshaving. But clearly there also can be an exclusivity-oriented subset within such a group, whether based on guns, cars, razors, knives, or whatever: the group (usually called “snobs”) doesn’t want hoi polloi involved and creates signs and dividers as barriers. Sort of the opposite of proselytizing.

    In any event, we seem to identify ourselves by our preferences: our “self” seems to be a collection of memes that communicate to which groups one belongs (i.e., the memes that we like). Communicating clearly one’s various group memberships must surely be absolutely vital information to a social animal.

    UPDATE again: That’s more or less explicit in my blog’s tagline: “A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.” “Interests” = memes.


    25 October 2016 at 11:35 am

  3. I can only imagine what year your Rolex Sub was… I’d have liked to have seen it.


    25 October 2016 at 3:06 pm

  4. I have to admit that I wanted it after seeing it in one of the early James Bond movies, with Sean Connery. Bond wore it, of course. I liked that it was self-winding (no batteries, though that was no much of an issue then: the Pulsar, which could not be read in sunlight), waterproof (enough), round dial, sweep second hand, date. Everything plus massively protected.

    Alas, it was soon superseded by very inexpensive watches. And it turned out that I like digital read-out, plus have day and date and stopwatch…


    25 October 2016 at 3:20 pm

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